Thursday, December 30, 2010

Baby Boomer Goes Nano! Holy Cow!

To the left of my coffee cup there on the table, is the box my iPod came in. Yikes!

It all started when I mentioned to my niece at Thanksgiving that I was hoping she would get me an iPod for Christmas--with a speaker to play it on. I gave away my CD player when I moved to California and then, the last time I gave a party, I noticed I had nothing on which to play music.

Besides, I love my iPhone and, as my niece put it, it was now time to experience "iPhun on an iPod." In other words: time to bring Aunt Robin into the 21st century.

When you are old enough to remember playing vinyl 45s on your record player (with the clown on it), the world seems to be changing very fast. I'm determined to stay (somewhat) abreast of the changes. I was hoping to get one of those little white things the size of a cell phone, with the earbuds, I see all the girls wearing at the gym, so I could wear one too and feel as cool as they look.

Instead, this tiny little thing arrived in a tiny little plastic box. It was so intimidating, it took me several days to work up the nerve to accept the challenge of opening the box and reading the directions. When I did so, I discovered a little music device slightly larger than a postage stamp.

My hand, my iPod Nano, and, a Christmas stamp.

The device was so small and came in such a small box, the printing on the instructions had to be very small to fit inside. Fortunately, the directions weren't complicated. I know this because I read them carefully--after I got out a magnifying glass and a flashlight so I could do so. (Don't laugh: it will happen to you too, one day!)

But, like all the Apple devices I have used so far, it is an absolute delight. My family went together to buy me the iPod and also bought me a speaker for it and now the whole thing is all set up.

I found an old CD a neighbor of mine in Florida made several years ago, filled with Christmas music, and I downloaded it onto the iPod Nano and I'm listening to it now. Yesterday, I downloaded Luciano Pavarotti singing on a disk called "O Holy Night." But it was so moving it made me cry, so I will wait a spell before I play that again. At this bittersweet holiday, I'm trying to live with my grief--not wallow in it. What a moving thing, is music.

Wouldn't my engineer father be astonished to see music coming out of a postage stamp! Next thing you know, someone will use this nano technology to help people overcome profound deafness--something that devastated my father in the last decade of his life. Maybe Steve Jobs--with all his gifts--can work on something like that in his spare time.

There is already a watch band you can get for this iPod Nano, so you can carry it around without losing it in your pocket. Meanwhile, if the iPod gets any more Nano, I guess you'll have to wear it on your earlobe like an earring and let the sound come out of the top of your head.

But they will have to start putting it in a larger box. Because if they don't: no one, over the age of 30, will be able to read the fine print.

Fortunately; all you really have to do is plug the thing into your computer and you are on your way. Directions? What directions?

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in the Foothills of High Mountains or True Tales of Christmas (Part Four)

Robin's note: For these True Tales, I asked two of my nieces to give me their memories of Christmas. One tells us about Christmas near one of our nation's most beautiful mountain ranges, and the other of holidays as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Central Asian nation on the plains beneath the Himalayas.

St. James Lutheran Church in Golden Colorado is now a wedding chapel; but, you can see it is a beauty.

Christmas in Colorado by Robin's Niece "Alpha"

"Christmas always reminds me of St. James Lutheran in Golden, Colorado. It was such a picturesque church up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Closing my eyes I can see and feel the excitement as I stand in line with the rest of the Sunday Schoolers waiting in the cold basement for our cue to climb the stairs to the sanctuary, singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." We followed each other to stand in our places at the altar in front of a packed church. All of us had memorized this song along with several others songs and Bible verses in the weeks before Christmas Eve.

The Christmas program was the same every year--the Christmas Story from the Bible--and the children would step up to memorizing more songs and a harder verse as they moved up in school and age. It's a good thing, though! I can now recite the Christmas story from Luke:2 in the King James Bible, which always brings me back to St. James Lutheran Church.

The interior of old St. James. Both photos courtesy of

One cold and snowy night after the service, my mom, sisters and I were driving home, and we heard the song "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." We must have been tired, because we laughed and laughed on our dark drive down the mountain.

Christmas morning was full of excitement and opening presents, and some years our grandparents or aunt were visiting us which added to the fun. But it was Christmas Eve at our little church in Golden, that, in my memories, is always most filled with magic."

Christmas in Uzbekistan by Robin's Niece "Omega"

"About seventy percent of Uzbeks are Sunnis and so December 25th comes and goes without any fanfare.

The first year that I was there, I tried to celebrate Christmas by going to visit my friend, Jill, who lived in Yangier. This was about a twenty-minute ride to Gulistan from my village and about thirty-five to forty-five minutes from there by bus.

I had only been in the country for about five months, so my language skills in Uzbek weren't the best. It was snowing that first Christmas, which shut down most of the taxi traffic, and my limited Uzbek made it difficult for me to explain to the few working drivers what I was trying to do.

I finally got a taxi into Gulistan, but missed the last bus into Yangier, so I just went to the post office (one of the few places a person could find a telephone back then) and called Jill to tell her I wouldn't be coming. That was my first Christmas.

My niece, making noodles with her host mother in Uzbekistan, 1999. If you look carefully you will notice the blur in the hands of the host mother: those are her noodles spinning so fast you can hardly see them. My niece is wearing a scarf, not for any reason required by Islam, but because, as she reported: "There wasn't enough extra water for us to wash our hair!"

"My second Christmas, I don't even remember, which means that I probably just taught my English classes and didn't worry about
it. Uzbek holidays were more interesting, by then, than trying to fabricate my own. Some volunteers did, mind you, but I was quite isolated, which made planning and logistics with other volunteers difficult.

A relatively large group of volunteers did meet up in Bukhara for the 1999/2000 New Year holiday. One of the female volunteers had an apartment that we all crammed into, and we rang in the new century by consuming far too much bad vodka and sharing the joy of speaking English--until the vodka got in the way.

The next day-ish we all went back to our host families and that was that."

Robin notes: Two very different stories of two very different Yuletide experiences. Yet each is memorable. Both girls are married now and both have their own families. One day, their children will enjoy hearing these memories, as, in their own lives, they write their own "True Tales of Christmas."

"True Tales of Christmas" ... To Be Continued ...

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas For a Soldier Far From Home: or True Tales of Christmas (Part Three)

Robin notes: The following story comes from an Army Reserve 1st Lt. who now commands a unit near his home. But Christmas six years ago was spent in a faraway place indeed with the Florida National Guard, where in those days he served as an NCO. For his safety and security, we are identifying him as "American Soldier J":

Christmas 2004, I was in Ad-Diwaniyah, Iraq, with almost one year in country and looking forward to getting out of Iraq to return home. I worked the night shift on the signal equipment most of the year and I remember the week before Christmas walking back from late night chow, in the cold, with Sgt. P, and seeing American and foreign soldiers had put Christmas lights up on some of the buildings: not too many (to be dangerous) but just enough to remind us all of the season.

As for myself, I had a small, one-foot Christmas tree in my little room that my mom sent me and some large Christmas cards that the kids at a church I attended sent me. The Christmas cards were great and everyone in my platoon enjoyed having them posted on the wall in our common area.

My wife and two sons (ages two and three) had sent me a Christmas care package. I really missed them that year. I wished I didn't have to be so far away and leave my wife all alone with the large task of taking care of the home and such young babies all on her own.

On Christmas Day, the chow hall had a giant Christmas dinner and was decorated with Santa, ribbon, and lights. I think some of the foreign troops really enjoyed an American Christmas dinner. That night, one of the guys in the platoon had his guitar out and we sang some Christmas songs.

Christmas cards from school children, posted in the soldiers' common room, brought Christmas home, even in Iraq.

These days, I'm a 1st Lt. in the Army Reserves back here in the States and now, I'm the Company Commander. I have the task of deploying one of my men to Kuwait. He leaves December 27 and will be on deployment for a year. I also have two other soldiers overseas and some more away this Christmas at training. Hard on their families, that's for sure.

Christmas is the best time of the year, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Sometimes, God pulls us back and puts us in places we don't want to be during Christmas and gives us time to reflect on all the many things we have to thank Him for.

'American Soldier J'"

"True Tales of Christmas" ... To be Continued ...

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Johann's Pilfered Tree or True Tales of Christmas (Part Two)

Middleburg, Virginia, Christmas 2010. Very horsey, is Middleburg. Liz Taylor lived there when she was married to Senator John Warner. (Photo courtesy

Robin's Note: I asked you to send me your own tales of Christmases past. This one comes from a reader who tells the story of how a "found object" lifted his spirits one holiday long ago.

"The Magical Discard" by a Reader of Robin Chapman News

"A few years back, I was planning to spend Christmas with my family in Europe after my girlfriend and I had parted ways. But, something came up and I had to scrap my plans a couple of days prior to leaving. As it was already nearly Christmas, I decided not to purchase a tree.

Then, on Christmas Eve morning, I took my dog for a walk in Middleburg, an attractive small town in the Virginia horseback country near Washington, with an English feel to it. We walked around for a while and past the town’s community center. In the back, I could see an already discarded Christmas tree lying on its side next to a refuse container.

I thought to myself, Noooo, I couldn’t, could I? I walked further down the street but was unable to get the tree out of my mind. We turned around and went back. The tree was approximately eight feet tall, still in great condition, and perfectly shaped. I knocked on the community center’s front door to ask whether I could possibly take it, but everyone had already left for the holidays.

I quickly got my car, tied the tree to the roof and then drove off, unsure whether it was really okay for me to take it. I remember once reading that even discarded property destined for the landfill or incinerator is still a legal possession of the home/property owner while on their premises. [Editor's note: the law may differ from state to state in America, but the detectives on those police shows always say it is legal for them to go through the trash, once it has been set out!]

So, legally speaking, I "appropriated" the discarded Christmas tree and headed for home. Once there, I immediately began to decorate it.

I filled it with white electric lights, red bulbs, artificial but authentic looking poinsettia branches, real tree candles (not to be lit), and ornaments that I had collected over the years. After I was done, around the time it began to get dark, I turned the Christmas tree lights on and stepped back to see how it turned out. I was amazed to see that this previously used and questionably acquired tree ended up being the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever had. It looked magnificent. In the following days, I received lots of compliments from my friends ... and the tree was difficult to take down when the time came in January.

Let’s just say my name is François or maybe Johann--in case you have Middleburg readers (like the town's sheriff.)"

Robin writes: If there was a crime, which I doubt, the statute of limitations--both morally and legally--must have expired by now. François or maybe Johann, your "forfeit" was your story and for that we say Fröhliche Weihnachten and/or Joyeux Noel!

"True Tales of Christmas" ... To be Continued ...

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

True Tales of Christmas (Part One)

My Mom and Dad on a Christmas past, when they were well and strong and life was good. Glamorous Faye and handsome Ashley. What a pair!

Now that I'm an orphan (pause for weeping here), I know some of you are worried about me this Christmas. But I want you to know I am doing okay. Relatives, friends and remaining family have been truly kind ("I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers." Thank you, Blanche.) And I have accepted, there is no reason for me to feel sorry for myself, just because my elderly parents, as much as I loved them, have gone to their rest. RIP. But, I can't help missing them anyway.

Why, there is my sister Kimberly, on one of her last Christmases in Los Altos, before she got married and moved to Colorado. I think that must be a suitcase in the right hand corner of the picture. She was a flight attendant then, for United, and traveled a lot.

Honestly, if you don't spread it around, I'll tell you that both my parents had a number of things in common with old Mr. Scrooge. I spent one Christmas with them, about four years ago, during which we attended church on Christmas Eve (Friday night), again on Christmas morning (Saturday, 8:30 AM service), and then again on Sunday morning (long communion service). Gifts were frowned upon and there wasn't even a tree! I wrapped a box of candy for them and put it under one of my mother's ferns, which I decorated with a few bows. Still, we weren't allowed to open our "gifts" until after lunch. Well, they were old by then, and lunch was more important to them than Christmas.

Faye, decorating the tree on another Christmas past. She was very particular about her tree: it had to have gold tinsel not silver! It does appear that tree was purchased at a discount--not unusual for my thrifty father. It looks a little sparse here and there.

Speaking of Ebeneezer Scrooge ...

My sister and I have both been reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in a wonderful annotated version edited by Michael Patrick Hearn. Reading the story, written 167 years ago, is itself is a revelation. It is really good. Good because it has all the elements of a good story. And it has a point, that has resonated around the world since the story first appeared in 1843.

The point? You can find it early in the tale, in this exchange between Scrooge and his nephew about Christmas:

"Let me leave it alone, then," said Scrooge. "Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!"

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew: "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round--apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that--as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people around them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good: and I say, God bless it."
A Christmas Carol: Stave One

And thus it is, for Christmas 2010, I began to cast about for true tales of Christmas that included: the joy and pathos of warmth and loss; present and absent friends; Christmases spent in faraway places: home fires that needed stoking; and any other Christmas experiences that have left a mark.

Here's a Christmas past with my father being very silly, something he liked to do. He's wearing a stocking cap, which I can't in the world think why I gave him. And he has just launched a toy helicopter by blowing on a little tube. The stocking cap went to the bottom of a drawer, never to be seen again. But he loved the helicopter.

For the first tale, you must indulge me in a World War II Christmas story that involves my Dad. I tell it because I want the world to remember all the fathers of his generation who spent so many Christmases far from home, making friends who never returned, making sacrifices they didn't complain about, in order that the rest of us could survive to live in freedom.

By Christmas 1942, my Dad had not seen home for a year. And though he could not yet tell anyone he loved where he was, he did write home to his favorite aunt and uncle:

"We did get some packages on Christmas Eve. I got the bars that were sent in August! [Editor's note: Probably some precious candy bars, though what shape they were in after four months in the U.S. Army V-mail system, we can only speculate.) The package had a long way to come and it must have had to hitch hike all the way.

We had fresh pork and spuds for Christmas dinner, and everyone had the day off. A pretty good Christmas considering all.

I hope Uncle Harry is able to keep getting enough gasoline to keep going.
[Uncle Harry was a salesman for Planters Peanuts.] I guess he will. You all are having it pretty tough with meat and sugar and coffee shortages. The more we give up now, though, the more we will have in the future."

By the following December, Lt. Chapman was now Capt. Chapman and had not seen his family for two years. Now at least they knew where he was:

"I guess you know from Mother that my happy home is Ascension Island. Today I went swimming at a place called Comfortless Cove. It is a pretty good place to swim because it is protected from the big waves. Why the name I don't know. A more logical arrangement, it seems to me, would be Ascension Cove on Comfortless Island, but after all I didn't name either place.

It may seem strange to you that I should be going swimming this time of year, but I have been here so long that it seems strange to me that it is cold up there.

We are eating well again. We have eggs for breakfast about three times a week and we have some kind of fresh meat almost every day. We had chicken for dinner today and ice cream and cake for supper. Some racket eh?

Thanks for the clippings. I did know the fellow whose picture you sent. He was my ROTC instructor a few months during my senior year. It seems to me that he married an Auburn girl. I was sorry to learn he was killed.

Yes, it won't be long until old Santa will have come and gone. Enclosed is a Christmas card for you all. It isn't much of one, but it carries the meaning. Love, Ashley"

I found the wartime letters and the Christmas card after he was gone. But he always told us: no one loves peace more than a soldier.

"True Tales of Christmas" ... To Be Continued ...

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Was That an Earthquake? Or Did a Tree Just Fall on My House?

It was a dark and stormy morning, then suddenly ...

I was on the telephone, watching the storm outside and speaking with a friend in Florida, when suddenly, something that felt like a sonic boom rattled my windows. Kaboom! it went. And rattle, rattle, thump it sounded.

"Gotta go," I said. "Either my tree just landed on my house or we just had an earthquake!"

I grabbed an umbrella and headed outside to see if the ancient deodara had disgorged another branch, this time directly on my roof. The neighborhood was quiet. The tree was intact. Hmm, I thought to myself. Maybe it was a sonic boom. If I had been in Florida I would have suddenly reminded myself that it was probably the Space Shuttle doing its double gainer through the sound barrier on its way in to Cape Canaveral.

But I was in California, so I was pretty sure I knew what it was.

I called my neighbor, The Comedian.

"Hi," I said.

"What did you blow up?" he asked. "Cooking again?"

"Okay funny man. That's all I wanted to know. Just wondering if you felt it too."

"Yes. And was it good for you too?"

"Oh, go train your dog" said I. The Comedian owns Toby Tyler, the out-of-control yellow lab who also works as a television news critic.

I called the police.

"Los Altos Police Department," said the exasperated voice on the non-emergency line.

"Uh, did something just blow up?"

"We just had an earthquake, if that's what you mean," said the operator, still sounding exasperated. Then she seemed to remember herself and made an effort to be at least slightly helpful: "Is there something wrong in your neighborhood? Should we send a car?"

"No," said I. "Just wanted to make sure nothing had blown up."

"No. We had an earthquake. Didn't you hear me say that?"

I turned on the television. Nothing but weather reports. California, which has some of the best weather on the planet absolutely loves weather stories. When I was in graduate school at UCLA studying journalism we read a survey that said there were more weather stories on the front page of the Los Angeles Times than on the front page of any other newspaper in America. And the weather in Los Angeles is terrific practically all the time.

Californians, it seems, love reading about other people's bad weather. And when we have a little rain of our own--the television meteorologists finally have something to do and get hours and hours of news time to show their maps and pictures of rain on the sidewalk and snow in the Sierras.

Anyway, I tried a couple of channels and finally there was big bulletin-type graphic plastered across the screen: EARTHQUAKE it read.

Turns out the quake was centered .5 miles south of Los Altos. That would be right about where I am, give or take .5 miles.

It was only a 3.1. So that's all the coverage it got. A guy called in and said it woke him up and he and the newscasters got a couple of yuks about that. Served him right, I thought, still sleeping at 9:58 in the morning.

A little rattling of the windows on a stormy day. A big thump, as if the fault slipped a foot or two. Eeeeeek. And that was that.

Once again we were spared the Big One. We had a pre-Christmas Quake and we didn't fall into the Pacific. My Royal Doulton mug of Winston Churchill remained firmly on the shelf, as did the old family clock. (Both of which I've secured with sticky tape, which probably wouldn't count for much in anything higher than a 7.0 on the Richter scale, but one does what one can.)

God Bless Us Every One.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Calm (& the Curtains) Before the Storm

"Ah but its cold outside ...."

The forecasters say we are just about to be blasted by one of those Pacific storms that drenches the California coast, causes expensive home to slide into the sea, and dumps so many feet of snow in the Sierras it causes visions of the Donner Party eating one another to dance in our heads.

Bring it on. My gutters are clean. And my drapes have arrived, so I'm ready for anything.

I wanted this fabulous toile de jouy fabric for the new drapes that had all these pictures on it of happy French peasants making toile. When I found it I thought to myself, Voila! Eureka! Zis eees pour moi!

Il est très joli, mais il est très coûteux!

That was until I discovered the drapes would have cost me $6000. Gosh my taste is good.

I decided to settle for a nice check for about one sixth the price. It is an honest-to-goodness linen and I like linen's durability as well as its feel of "old tablecloth." This one is reminiscent of a Madras shirt I had long ago. To me, it looks great: feminine, but with overtones of early Beach Boys.

I will have to move into that room, temporarily, when I'm ready to paint my own, so, it is comforting to know I'll have drapes on the windows. I don't want to feel like I'm on television again when I get into my jammies. Not that anyone would care at this point, but there are those guys who are just crazy for little old ladies. One can never be sure.

I bought three yards of the toile to use for something. Can't think what, but I hated to let down those happy peasants doing all that toile-making. They will find themselves useful somewhere in this house.

Meanwhile, the guest room will have an added glow in the months ahead. It faces southeast, and is so sunny there in the spring and summer that, in the early morning light, the new check will put rose colored glasses on the waking world.

I'm hoping I still have a few more decades of productivity left in me: and I honestly don't plan to spend what's left of it decorating this house. In fact, I'm in the middle of making plans for new projects in the days ahead that I hope will engage what is left of my brain.

But today, as the sky is darkening, I'm hunkering down. I'll be counting my blessings and praying the cedar in the front yard stays right where it is. I'd hate to have a hole in my roof dampen my rosy outlook--not to mention my new drapes.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Zen and the Art of Making Holiday Wreaths

Guadalupe River Park Conservancy in San Jose, California, provided all the materials for a class on how to make wreaths. Most of the things they used can be found in any garden.

My friend Leslie, whom I've known since the seventh grade, asked me to go with her to a wreath making class at the Guadalupe Park Conservancy here in Northern California. I said yes mostly because her schedule is so busy these days it was one way for us to spend a couple of hours together.

I hoped there wouldn't be a glue gun at this thing. I've always thought the words "glue" and "gun" suggest something to be avoided at all costs since, when placed together, those nouns sound both violent and sticky.

The event turned out to be a delight. The master gardener, Milli Wright, had gone to local vineyards to cut the grape vines for us to weave into the wreath base. I always wondered how they did that! Now all I have to do is make friends with a vintner and I'll have wreath material for life.

We could chose what we wanted from the piles of foliage the Guadalupe gardeners had scrounged. English holly and variegated holly; California bay leaves, and culinary bay; rosemary herb; eucalyptus blooms; pyracantha berries; rose hips and things from the garden whose names I can't remember.

The two hours whooshed by and though I considered myself seriously arts-and-crafts-challenged, I actually turned out a wreath that at least looks something like a wreath. And not one person in the room pulled a glue gun on me.

It may look a little like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, but it is mine own.

One of the best features of the event was that, at least for those two hours, I was able to forget that on this same day last year, I lost my mom.

All during the past year, I walked in the garden that had made her so happy. In the garden I often found the feathers that birds leave behind as evidence that they, too, live and work in the world of shrubs and flowers Mom cultivated with such care.

When I got home, I dug into my feather collection and added those to the wreath.

Then, I placed the wreath over the hearth where, for so many Christmases past, my father built a fire after we returned from church on Christmas Eve.

Now, memories of those days float softly around me, like the feathers I gathered in the garden.

The hearth at Ft. Chapman, December 2010.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Flying Visit to the Pacific Northwest In Which We Learn What Logan the Dog Has in Common With Warren Buffett

Robin and her Aunt Ruth, lakeside at the Oregon coast.

I've just returned from a flying visit to my Aunt Ruth in a little lakeside burg near the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Aunt Ruth is my mother's youngest sister and though she's been diagnosed with a variety of illnesses that would have knocked most others flat, she's still looking the picture of health and always has a smile on her face.

Markie, one of the cousins I've always felt close to, met me at the airport and transported me far out into the western regions so I could share a few days with my Aunt and my always-slightly-amused-by-life Uncle Joe--the first since we lost my mother Faye, Ruth's sister. As a hospitality gift, I brought along a two pound box of Sees Candy, the best chocolate in North America. (I thought I would help them out, by eating as much of it as I could so that they wouldn't have to worry about the calories.)

Along for the ride was Markie's friend, Logan the Dog, a calm and mannerly (Had I But Known!) Golden Retriever, who loves everyone but especially Markie.

Robin and some of her Oregon cousins, back in her days with KGW-TV. From left: Markie, Beth, Char, Robin, Tim, and Kenny. Missing from the photo are Barb, Sally, Tom, and identical twins Bruce and Brian.

It was great to see Ruthie again, whom I haven't seen since my parents were ill. It had been even longer since I had seen my Uncle Joe. "You look just the same," said Ruth. "Only now, she has a skinny lap," said Uncle Joe. Hmmm, I wonder what that means?

My Uncle Joe, at right, in his favorite chair.

Ruth is the mother of ten children, which I believe means she cannot be called unstoppable but can certainly be deemed unflappable. She has a strong faith, a strong marriage, and a family full of children so different, one wonders about the wild roulette of DNA.

Ruth and Joe in Oregon three decades ago, when I worked at KGW-TV and saw them often.

Ruth and Joe's marriage is still a loving one, a good thing since it produced such a clan--including two sets of twins (both fraternal and identical)--and a family that now encompasses seventeen grandchildren and a variety of great grandchildren, spouses, partners, step grandchildren, and other vanishing and reappearing family members that bring the annual reunion to something around forty, give or take the odd errant spouse or grandchild hiking the hinterlands of Hilo or the Kenai Peninsula.

Ooops. Aunt Ruth closed her eyes for this one!

We laughed, we cried, Uncle Joe turned out a terrific pork roast (who knew he could cook?) and on night two, we asked Logan the Dog to guard the house while we went out for a seafood dinner.

We must not have been specific enough in our instructions to Logan.

When we returned home I screamed bloody murder.

"Oh its horrible," I cried. "We've been robbed! Oh no!"

Ruth cowered in the doorway, afraid to enter, and Joe reached for his cell phone.

"No!" I said with great sorrow. "Don't call the police! Its the Sees! Logan ate the whole box!"

Logan had climbed up onto the dining room table, managed to avoid knocking over the remainder of Joe's Manhattan cocktail--and brought down the two pound box of Sees With Cream Centers and finished off the 90% of them we had not eaten--leaving behind just the box and the individual candy papers.

"Who me?" Logan looked the picture of innocence.

"Bad dog," I said, but with only a laugh in my voice.

Logan looked up at me with a sort of a "What?" expression, pretending he had no idea what could possibly be wrong.

"I'm just afraid he'll be sick," said Aunt Ruth.

But Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, would be proud. Some years ago, the great investor tasted Sees and liked what he tasted so well he bought the company.

Logan did not get sick. With the great Warren Buffett (no relation to Jimmy), Logan the Dog highly endorses Sees Candy.

Logan is a Retriever. And the opportunity he found, was Golden.

Merry Christmas to Aunt Ruth, Uncle Joe, and family. And Logan? Forget it. You've already had your present.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Why We Love Winston Churchill

My Churchill Doulton mug. There are entire books now about Churchilliana. Check eBay and Amazon if you are interested.

I've just been reading my umpteenth book about Winston Churchill, the greatest man of the 20th century, and arguably one of the greatest men in Western Civilization, since he, alone, gave the free world the courage to save itself from the horrors of Hitler.

Churchill: The Unexpected Hero by Paul Addison, is one of the most revisionist and critical biographies I've read of Winston Spencer Churchill. The book was published by the Oxford University Press in 2005 and its author is determined to puncture any and every myth he can about Churchill the patriotic hero. And yet, as the book progresses, the author, like a reluctant lover, is seduced by Churchill's charms.

The English aristocracy loathed Churchill for working for his living (unlike most aristocrats, he did not inherit an income, so out of talent and necessity, he worked as a writer, something that later won him the Nobel Prize for literature) and for being "brash" and "American" (his mother was Jennie Jerome of New York). His conservative colleagues were used to spending their evenings at their clubs, making up cruel remarks about those friends who were not in the room and ignoring any crisis that took place between Friday and Monday when they were at "the weekend" on their country estates. Churchill's mother told him that one of her ancestors had been a full blooded Seneca Indian squaw. Behind his back, one of his best friends said Churchill had "nigger blood."

The working class, too, was suspicious of Churchill. They called him an old fogey and a Victorian aristocrat.

In the end, he earned the love of all in his island nation for being neither aristocrat nor working man, but something even better: entirely himself. A man whose ability for work was so astonishing, he had otherwise distinguished British civil servants running in their hallways to complete tasks described on memos he sent that were stamped (in red) ACTION THIS DAY.

Well, the life of his country was at stake, so a little urgency might be forgiven. Even in an Englishman.

No one else in the world spoke like Churchill. He knew the power of words to charm and the power of words as propaganda. At the beginning of the war, Captain Talbot, the Director of Anti Submarine Warfare, questioned the statistics he was using of U-Boats sunk in the Atlantic. In response Churchill said:

"There are two people who sink U-boats in the war Talbot. You sink them in the Atlantic and I sink them in the House of Commons. The trouble is that you are sinking them at exactly half the rate I am."

Churchill later had Captain Talbot transferred to another job.

When FDR's right hand man, Harry Hopkins, attended the Allied conference in Casablanca:

"He was disturbed to find Churchill in bed enjoying a bottle of wine for breakfast. 'I asked him what he meant by that,' Hopkins recorded, 'and he told me that he had a profound distaste on the one hand for skimmed milk, and on the other hand no deep-rooted prejudice about wine, and that he had reconciled the conflict in favour of the latter.'"

He liked his foreign minister, the dashing if dull Anthony Eden, but one day when Eden spoke to the House of Commons, Addison reports, Churchill told a friend that Eden " ... had used every cliché except 'God is Love.'"

After dinner, throughout the war, he liked to enjoy a movie. Then, at about midnight, he put in three more hours of work, much to the dismay of his colleagues. One night, he was told that Hitler's right hand man, Rudolf Hess, had parachuted into Scotland. He responded:

"Hess or no Hess, I'm going to watch the Marx Brothers," he said.

His countrymen adored him. In a playground in Stockton-on-Tees, some children were heard singing in 1941:

When the war is over Hitler will be dead,
He hopes to go to heaven with a crown upon his head.
But the Lord said No! You'll have to go below,
There's only room for Churchill so cheery-cheery-oh.

In the evenings during the War he stopped wearing black tie (as was the custom among his class) and had his wife design for him his "siren suit" to his own specifications. It was a velour one piece thing, something like a flight suit only not nearly as attractive, that he could wear in the evening and then sleep in, and then, if necessary, arise in mid-sleep and dash into an air raid shelter in, and not have to stop and grab a dressing gown to cover the fact that he slept in his altogether.

He was, like Albert Einstein, a fully formed unique. He saw a big picture that no one else even imagined. He spoke like no one else. He thought like no one else. During World War I, after he was demoted to a small command in the trenches, he conceived the idea of the tank. And it was the tank, plus the help of the USA, that finally brought an end to that horrible conflict.

He created the code-breakers at Bletchley Park who, early in the war, found the secret to the German Enigma code, and had the gems of the decoded German dispatches sent to him daily in a box he said was filled with his "golden eggs." He encouraged the scientists who invented radar and the U-Boat defense ASDIC for his ships. He personally approved the subterfuge of "The Man Who Wasn't There" to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies were not going to invade Sicily, something that saved thousands of lives.

And this wonderful man was so funny. Paul Addison writes:

"In February 1945, when Churchill gave a banquet in the desert in honour of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, he was told that the King could not allow smoking or drinking in his presence. Churchill replied that he was the host, and if it was the King's religion that made him say such things, 'my religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.'"

Before the war, Churchill's friend, the former Prime Minister Lloyd George, went to Germany and had a pathetic and cheery parlay with Hitler. When Churchill similarly was in Germany, researching his book on his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, one of Hitler's minions met with him for dinner and offered him the chance to meet the "great man." Churchill said he would, but added that the man should ask Hitler what he meant by all his anti-semitism. The next day, Churchill reported that the meeting was cancelled. "And thus," Churchill later wrote, "He missed his only opportunity of meeting me."

Author Paul Addison's somewhat painful respect for Churchill simply makes me wonder at Churchill all the more. Left, right, and center: whatever one's politics, one has to respect almost magical courage and genius when it seems to pop up out of nowhere at a crucial time in history.

I remain an unabashed admirer. And, I confess to feeling a certain pride in the fact that some of his ability may have come from the fact that, as the inbred English aristocracy weakened, Churchill, with his brains and style and inner strength, got half his DNA from America. As he told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. in 1941:

"I cannot help reflecting," he said with a mischievous smile, "that if my father had been American, and my Mother British, instead of the the other way round, I might have got here on my own."

Here's a somewhat strange Staffordshire toby of Churchill and Operation Overlord I own. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery peek out from behind him. Churchill's foot rests on Hitler's head. That blue thing he's wearing is his famous siren suit.

If you are interested, the book I've been reading is:
Churchill: The Unexpected Hero, by Paul Addison. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. 2005. I found a copy at my local library.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Perversity of Inanimate Objects (And Some Animate Ones Too)

This my my father's IOWDT and it works great, which I wish I could say for my own.

My Indoor/Outdoor Wireless Digital Thermometer has been acting up. Either that or I'm having a nervous breakdown for the holidays. Possibly both.

My father sent me this interesting gadget for Christmas about ten years ago, when I was living in a pretty little house in Winter Park, Florida. You wouldn't think you would need a thermometer of any kind in Florida: hot all summer (day and night), mild all winter (night and day.) But it was oddly interesting to rise at 7:00 o'clock on an August morning, in a house cooled to 72° (F), to see on the digital thermometer that it was already 88° (F) outside. (Not to mention the humidity.)

It was a hip enough tool that my neighbor, Thad, who is usually way ahead of me on the techno curve, saw mine and bought an Indoor/Outdoor Wireless Digital Thermometer for himself.

The IOWDT came with me when I moved to California in 2009, and for one year lived in the kitchen of my apartment, where I could check the highs and lows as I was making my coffee in the morning.

When I moved into my family home, after the deaths of both my parents this year, I found I had two IOWDTs: one that belonged to Dad and my own. Since his transmitter was in the backyard, I put my transmitter on the front porch. And since his receiver lived in the kitchen, my receiver lived on the dresser in my bedroom.

You don't have to travel far at Fort Chapman to check the temperature. Backyard, front porch, kitchen and bedroom. We're covered.

However; my IOWDT has a quirk, not discovered in Florida, for reasons which will become clear.

On Tuesday, November 23, 2010, the SF Bay Area had its first night in which the temperature dipped below 40° (F). It did so at 4:00 a.m. I know this because, when it gets below 40° (F), my digital thermometer goes only to 37° (F) and then flashes and holds and beeps three times every thirty seconds until you ... until you what? The first time it happened I was so sleepy, I took the thermometer, beeping loudly at me in a scolding manner, down the hall and set it in a bathroom and went back to sleep.

My sleep was punctuated with soft beeps from down the hall that lasted until morning. In the morning I had the presence of mind to remove the battery, but of course, by then it had warmed up outside and later that day I inserted the battery and put the thermometer back in my bedroom. This can't possibly be the way this thing is programmed, I reasoned.

On my Dad's version, in the kitchen, it showed the temperature had actually dropped to 30° (F) that night.

On Night Two of the cold weather, my IOWDT hit 37° (F) again, this time at about 3:30 a.m., and again started beeping and flashing. This time, I took out the battery and went back to sleep. Later that day, a brainy Thanksgiving house guest took it upon himself to look into the issue: sure that I was just a silly lady who didn't understand digital stuff. He couldn't fix it either. There is no program button on the gizmo that I can find. Or he could find either.

My father was a notorious cheapskate. Do you think he found a discount version of this thing for Florida that doesn't go below 37° (F), and, if it does, then starts to beep and flash so you'll go out and light up your oil pots so your citrus won't freeze? Or what?

I'm stumped. And its not the only thing that has me stumped this week. There is some animal around here that is digging up my lawn. Tearing out one particular corner of the lawn, sod piece by sod piece, and tossing the pieces in the air. Just this one spot, several times a week.

"Oh, that's a skunk, looking for grubs," said the man at the Garden Store. "Or a raccoon."

"In the middle of the afternoon?" I asked. I thought those creatures were nocturnal.

"It's bad this year," he told me. "The animals are very hungry."

So was the man at the Garden Store. He sold me, for $99.99, the YardGard, another digital gadget that has been vexating me ever since. It kept the creature away, for a few days. And then we had rain. "Do not use the Yard Guard in rainy conditions," read the YardGard directions.

Was I supposed to run out and put an umbrella over the thing? It is for the YARD, which, by definition is out of doors. How can one not use it in the rain?

After the rain, the YardGard made a whistling noise for several days, which kept the creature away, for sure. It also scared most of the neighborhood dogs, cats, birds, and some of the little old ladies walking by my house.

Yesterday it conked out. No low or high frequency sounds. No red light when a creature passes by. Nada. Zippo. I tried new batteries but that did not do it. The YardGard is dead.

I was so depressed, yesterday afternoon I curled up with a really boring book by Antonia Fraser about 16th century England and read about Catholic "recusants" and the foreign King James I--he was from Scotland, eh gad!

While I was thus distracted, the invisible creature returned and was back at my lawn with much gusto. Sod everywhere. Grubs absconded with.

I put a blanket over the damaged lawn corner and covered the blanker over with boards and those presto fire logs (looks pretty strange, I'll admit) so the creature--not having, I hope, an opposable thumb--won't be able to lift up the blanket and tear up the lawn for a few days. Until, of course, it rains again.

At which point I'll have a wet blanket. Instead of just feeling like one.

Robin's new yard guard methodology.

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